Zen Gardens and Amish Quilts

A lecture delivered at the GTU Commencement
May 8, 2003

by Rev. Jennifer L. Lord, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Worship and Preaching, Lancaster Theological Seminary

President Donahue, Dean Holder, Assistant Dean Maloney, Chairperson Weiser, GTU Staff and Faculty, fellow graduates, and our life support system of familty and friends:

When I click on Mapquest I am told that Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where I now live, is 2811.53 miles from Berkeley California. I know what these miles mean:

Miso soup is expensive when available.
There is no fourth generation Shangaiese acupuncturist to tell me my kidney chi is weak.
Peets coffee is now delivered by the UPS man, or the Easter bunny.

My husband Casey and I look at each other from time to time and say the predictable line: we're not in California anymore.

I remember one San Francisco spring day—it had that typical Bay area quality of light such that a spritz of windex could not have improved the sky's blue or the azalea's fuchsia. Casey and I paid to walk through the gates of the Japanese garden of Golden Gate park. I watched tree and rock and fish in stream; arched bridge, grass, pebble path. I wandered the wet walking garden and the dry Zen garden. I thought: how wonderful to be in a place where everything makes sense; the essence of nature is represented and all is in harmony.

I am some 2800 miles away from the diverse offerings of this Bay Area and from our Holy Hill. I am far away from our unique garden, our ecumenical and interfaith garden, of nine Member Schools, seven Research Centers and three Institutes for Study. I am a long way from the diversity of scholarship represented here.

Instead, I now reside in an American town that makes efforst to honor diversity, but is better known for the Amish and the Old Order Mennonites with their horse-drawn buggies, shoofly pies and quilts.

Yet even as I miss this place and make these comparisons, I am mindful of former Dean Miles' comment: now may be the time for the GTU to stop bragging so much about how unique we are, and begin to hope that people will recognize us for how excellent we are coming to be.

Well, the GTU badge of honor that I wear is one about unique diversity, but one about excellence too. I've been flaunting it for some time now. I wore it to my professional gathering of preachers. I wore it to the professional gathering of liturgists. And this year was a banner year: at the Academy of Homiletics GTU persons outnumbered those from Princeton and at the North American Academy of Liturgy GTU people outnumbered those from Notre Dame!

These are not football scores, but they could be: they are moments of institutional pride, of recognition, of others taking notice of the GTU and our scholarship!

Yes, I'd say that the GTU badge of honor I wear is a badge about excellence in a diverse setting. And I've done the spy work: I've compared my program to those of other schools: I've examined required reading lists and comprehensive examination rules, I've compared dissertation titles and advisors. I imagined how my cv would look to the search committee. My cv was just fine.

And so adorned with this badge I moved to the far away land of Pennsylvania. Where they told me that the seminary was German Reformed heritage of the United Church of Christ, translation, fairly close to my Christian denomination of choice: Presbyterian. However, they said, we are actually an ecumenical seminary, serving a diversity of students. That's fine, I thought, I have my GTU badge.

Strangely enough the GTU badge at Lancaster Seminary didn't quite get me as far as I thought. Yes, the mention of Berkeley still induces a reverential breath, but quickly the students in my classrooms seemed to push on and say: "fine, now about us. Sitting in front of you as you teach worship, as you teach preaching"—Unitarian next to Church of the Brethren next to Methodist next to Metropolitan Community Church, next to Assemblies of God who was formerly UCC and formerly Roman Catholic—students saying "fine we see your GTU badge, now about us . . .There is great religious diversity, even in Lancaster.

I've moved from the land of many Japanese Gardens to the land of many Amish Quilts and I made a mistake. I thought that Amish quilts were purely about utilitarianism. I thought they were only about making a block of color fit correctly into a pattern. I was wrong.

Because I am told by my quilter friend that Amish quilts are greatly about honoring the color. The classic quilts are pieced solid colors; forms are cut and stitched in the geometrically perfect patterns. The quilts are greatly about how fuchsia can relate to olive green. And about the Amish black that quilters know you can only buy in Amish country, black that is then set against fuchsia, olive green, blue, purple and even yellow.

It is in the color, it is in the relationship of the colors. My LTS students are absolutely right to say "fine, now what about us." They are absolutely right to expect that my excellent training in the diverse setting of the GTU does not send me to them with ready prepared rubber stamped ways of negotiating diversity. They are right to expect that I will have had my third eye opened, my heart bowed down. I will now take my place as the bright orange-red GTU color in the quilt.

It matters to me that my theological education at the GTU has been excellent. And it matters to me that it has occurred in and been shaped by this unique, diverse setting. But it also matters to me that theological education is an art.

It is not the type of art that perfects forms and proportions. It is the type of art that is defined by fluidity of experiences and many realities. Theological Education is an art according to the standards of newer aesthetic theories that understand the irreducibility of relationship.

The art of theological education understands that meaning is not simply the tree or the rock, but the tree and rock together. It is not fuchsia or olive green, but both, in tension, together. It is not simply the assemblage of the parts, but the parts interacting, meaning together. In other words my dissertation title must interact with your dissertation title then we are in the garden.

Dean Arthur Holder, in his Opening Convocation Address, said that he sees the GTU community as one that hopes to live well before God and with one another. I know this is true for the trade of homileticians. I trust that it is true for all of our disciplines.

But to live well before God and with one another makes a demand on those of us in theological education. It is the demand of raising our voices. It is the demand of bringing our ideas to speech. It is the demand of letting loose our thesis and dissertation titles on the world. It is saying to those who are tentative about financial support of our institutions in these times that theological education is not an expendable budget line item.

Our world continues to detour down the path of the simple, leaders looking for easier solutions, zero sum games. I think the art of theological education says it is not either rock or tree, fuchsia or olive green, it is all, together, in order to live right before God, one another, and the cosmos.

To the Enrons of the world, we submitted our titles:

economics and theology,
philosophy of action,
moral discourse;

to the spiraling effects of drought we investigated:

ethics of sustainability,
capabilities approach,
entanglement interpretation;

to continuing gender inequalities we argued:

erotic charity and justice,
honoring widowhood,
decolonizing and queering the doctrine of the Trinity:

we who keep company with theory, word and idea, we are to stir things up so that systems are challenged, hands are held and mouths are fed. We are necessary, not expendable; we are necessary in our complexity, in our art.

I am profoundly grateful for my years here. I will continue to wear my GTU badge of honor, I will shamelessly flaunt the institutional name on my diploma, and as soon as next weekend at Lancaster Seminary's ceremonies, I will wear my colors—for the second time—with pride. I had an excellent education at the GTU. I did it at the ever unique diverse front runner school, the GTU. Yet the parting gift that the GTU bestows upon me, and I believe upon my graduate colleagues, is the knowledge that we do not take with us a prefabricated plan for diversity but a posture, a watchfulness, and a charge to be colorful for the sake of the world.

May it be so.

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